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EVEN WITH TURMOIL, MARINE MIDLAND ARENA'S FIRST YEAR CALLED A SUCCESS

One year after the opening of Marine Midland Arena, Buffalo Sabres President Larry Quinn compares the experience to living through 1968, a wild year of counterculture ferment, political assassinations and social turmoil.

Granted, pairing an edgy singer like Ani DiFranco with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on opening night Sept. 27, 1996, had a '60s sort of unorthodoxy to it, but how does that compare to a year whose mantra was "the whole world's watching"?

It may be because Quinn, who was praised for his role in building the $127 million arena, often found himself on the flip side of attention as executive of a Sabres team that went through a roller coaster year on and off the ice.

"This year was a watershed year where we went from one era to another," he said. "Obviously, a lot of people think we're nuts, by what you read, but there's a tremendous vibrancy and energy. Maybe we'll settle down now."

The public has a $55 million investment in the building spread among the state, county and city. Banks lent the rest. Indications are that the money was well-spent both on the arena, bringing business downtown, and priming the pump for future redevelopment in the area, observers said last week.

"I believe for the $10 million we have in the project, it's doing what we expected and will do even more in the long run," Mayor Masiello said.

No matter what may be thought of the forced departures of Sabres coach Ted Nolan and superstar center Pat LaFontaine after the club's strong first season in its new home, it was a good year for the building itself, Sabres and public officials agree.

"They had a terrific year, and preliminary numbers indicate that," said Richard M. Tobe, the county official who helped shape the deal.

One-hundred and sixty events were held in the arena its first year, compared to 89 in Memorial Auditorium the year before. Quinn said the facility made a small profit and is paying the city its $500,000 annual rent.

Although the building itself has been fiscally healthy, it didn't cure the hockey club's financial problems -- the main reason the Sabres in 1990 insisted on a new home. Team officials said they would have to move their franchise unless they got a larger, more lucrative facility.

Quinn said the gap between team expenses and revenues was closed considerably with the opening of the arena. The last year in the Aud, the team brought in $14 million in ticket revenues and paid out $20 million in salaries.

In the first year in the new arena, ticket revenues swelled to $19.5 million, he said, while the payroll reached about $21 million.

"We're not out of the woods in terms of the franchise, but we're making tremendous strides in making it economically viable," Quinn said. "We need to be on top of our game because the NHL salary structure is going slightly wild.

"There is no question this team wouldn't be here if we hadn't built this."

The second major reason for building the arena, and the one often cited by elected officials, was that it would stimulate the development of the adjacent area, notably the Inner Harbor and Cobblestone District.

Plans are well under way for a $27.1 million Inner Harbor development project that is expected to be completed by the summer of 2000. The plan, which Gov. Pataki described as a "world-class tourist destination," includes a festival plaza, new docks for ships and wide walkways.

"Building the arena was crucial to moving Inner Harbor ahead; they feed off each other," said Tom Blanchard, director of planning and research for the state-run Empire State Development Corp.

The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority also is proceeding with $1.1 million worth of renovation and repair work at the old DL&W railroad terminal located across the street from the arena on South Park Avenue.

The job includes making safety improvements, creating access points and generally preparing it for eventual reuse, said Kevin McCarthy, NFTA real estate director. The work is expected to be completed next summer, and the authority will begin seeking developers by late spring.

Among ideas discussed for the upper floor are a satellite facility for the Buffalo Museum of Science, a children's museum or an arcade of shops and restaurants. The NFTA also plans to build a $12 million enclosed Metro Rail station in front of the terminal to serve the waterfront.

On the east side of the arena, the city, with the help of volunteers organized by local preservationists, has been restoring the signature paving blocks that give the Cobblestone Historic District its identity.

There also have been preliminary discussions about building an amateur ice rink facility between Mississippi and Columbia streets. The $10- to $15-million complex would be built jointly by the city and users and be operated privately.

The future of the Aud remains uncertain and no proposals have come forward for the Webster Block, a city-controlled stretch of land just north of the arena between Main and Washington streets. It is currently a parking lot.

With all the public investment continuing to pour into the area, many officials are waiting for the private sector to step up to the plate. So far, the only tangible project is a proposal by Dennis Brinkworth III to open a restaurant in a Cobblestone building at 49 Illinois St.

"It's slower than I expected," Masiello said. "The Inner Harbor is on schedule, but what you haven't seen is the private sector coming to bat with a hotel or some other project. I wish it would go faster and hope it will come."

Two of the area's bigger developers, Carl Paladino and Carl J. Montante, own property near the arena but have no building plans in the works. Paladino, who owns the old Harbor Inn on Ohio Street, said the city should let the market dictate the timing of redevelopment and not subsidize Cobblestone.

"When the market is right and we can find the right use and tenant, we'll do the project conventionally," he said.

One of the big fears about the arena -- that it would suck all the food and beverage dollars from its patrons and leave nothing for other downtown businesses -- has not materialized. The opposite has occurred, said Peggy Beardsley, manager of marketing for Buffalo Place.

"When there is something going on at the arena, these places are mobbed," she said, "and there's business after events as well."

Quinn said he'd like to expand the activity in the Marine Midland Arena in its second year, particularly during the summer months. The facility was dark much of the time between the end of the last hockey season and the beginning of the fall concert rush.

"We know we have to compete with outdoor amphitheaters," he said.

One idea is for the arena to co-produce its own concerts, either with the entertainment acts themselves or with stage hands. Quinn said his facility also may more aggressively pursue country and western bands because they are a popular indoor attraction during the good weather months.

The announcement that a new arena football league will locate a franchise at the Marine Midland Arena also should bolster summer activity, he said.

As for how all the off-season turmoil will affect the fortunes of the mainstay of the arena, the Sabres, Quinn said he is bracing for some fan backlash.

"I think it will affect our attendance until we can show people we're headed in a direction toward winning," he said. "I don't know how long it will take. I hope quickly."

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